Senators disappointed; Sotto pins hope on Ombudsman
BY RAYMOND AFRICA and ASHZEL HACHERO
SENATORS yesterday expressed disappointment over the decision of a justice department-led task force to recommend the filing of charges against several key officials of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) but not against Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
“No Duque? No Del Rosario? I’m dumbfounded! Article 217 of the RPC (Revised Penal Code) is very clear. Perhaps the Ombudsman would have a better perspective of the anomalies,” said Senate President Vicente Sotto III.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said more persons may be charged as the task force which he heads continues with its investigations. He made the statement in reaction to Sotto’s statements.
“Our report is only about our initial findings. Further investigations will be conducted and more people may be charged,” he said.
President Duterte ordered the creation of the task force last month to look into alleged corruption at the state insurer. On Monday night, he said he approved the recommendations.
The Senate committee of the whole, after three hearings on the alleged anomalies at PhilHealth, has recommended criminal and administrative charges against Duque, who is PhilHealth board chairman, for failing to stop illegal transactions involving funds from the interim reimbursement mechanism (IRM). The Senate panel also recommended administrative and criminal charges against resigned PhilHealth president and CEO Ricardo Morales, and other ranking agency officials in connection with the irregularities.
A resigned PhilHealth official turned whistleblower has tagged Duque as “godfather” of an alleged mafia at PhilHealth. Duque has denied the allegation.
Sotto said he was “dumbfounded” upon learning that Duque and Rodolfo del Rosario Jr., resigned PhilHealth senior vice president for legal sector, were not included in the list of those recommended to be charged.
Sotto said he still hopes Duque and Del Rosario will be included in the charges as the Ombudsman will not rely solely on the findings of the task force. “They have motu proprio powers,” he said.
Last month, the Office of the Ombudsman ordered a six-month preventive suspension against 13 senior PhilHealth officials in connection with administrative charges filed against them, but did not give details. The order was issued amid investigations being conducted by the Senate and the House into billions in PhilHealth funds reportedly lost to corruption.
The task force recommended charges against resigned PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales; Jovita Aragona, senior vice president and chief information officer; Arnel de Jesus, chief operating officer; Renato Limsiaco Jr., senior vice president on Fund Management Sector; Israel Pargas, senior vice president on Health Finance Policy Sector; and Calixto Gabuya Jr., acting senior manager, Information Technology and Management Department.
Among the charges are for the violation of the anti-graft law, malversation of public funds, gross misconduct, and gross neglect of duty, among others, in connection with the alleged irregularities in the procurement of information and communications technology equipment and disbursement of the IRM.
Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan said it was no longer a surprise under the Duterte administration that its allies are left unpunished even if there is glaring evidence of their involvement in anomalies.
“Duque being unpunished is no longer surprising… The list of corrupt and incompetent untouchables under this administration is getting longer. Condoning corruption, illegality and incompetence will only lead to more corruption and incompetence,” he said.
Pangilinan said Duque’s case can be likened to the cases of administration allies like Nicanor Faeldon who figured in irregular releases of convicts in the Bureau of Corrections while he was its head, and when a big bulk of shabu slipped past the Bureau of Customs when he was its chief; Isidro Lapena, while the Bureau of Customs chief, was clueless as to how some P11-billion shabu shipment went missing; the Tulfo brothers Ben and Erwin for not returning P60 million which was allegedly illegal paid by as advertising contracts of the Department of Tourism formerly headed by their sister Wanda on the TV program; former PNP chief Oscar Albayalde whose name was dragged in the illegal activities of ninja cops; Metro Manila police chief Debold Sinas who was not punished when he allowed his men to have a “mañanita” at the NCRPO headquarters for his birthday amid the strict implementation of quarantine protocols due to COVID-19, and former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre who was tagged in a P50-million bribery scandal.
Senate president pro tempore Ralph Recto said the Senate hearings showed Duque, as board chairman, neglected to guard PhilHealth against irregularities.
He said it is the board that should be monitoring the agency. “If the board did its job, then there should be no problem,” Recto told CNN Philippines.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said: “This is good reason enough to feel gratified that we did our share in taking the first big step in making those criminally and administratively liable for the misuse and abuse of public monies accountable. At least, for a change, we can hope that these ‘vultures’ will suffer for their misdeeds to satisfy their greed at the expense of the sick and the unhealthy among our countrymen,” he said.
Guevarra on Monday submitted the task force’s 177-page report to President Duterte. He said composite teams “will pursue further targeted investigations of specific acts of fraud or corruption committed by health providers and PhilHealth personnel alike.”
Guevarra expressed confidence the findings of the task force will not be questioned even if the charges will be filed before the Office of the Ombudsman considering that the latter is also part of the task force that conducted the probe.
Guevarra said the Office of the Ombudsman is not considered as member of the task force but was invited as a “guest participant” in the proceedings.
“The Office of the Ombudsman and other constitutional bodies like the Commission on Audit and the Civil Service Commission attended the meetings and hearings of the task force upon our invitation, for the purpose of pursuing their own independent investigations and or audit,” he said.
“We do not consider them as formal members of the task force precisely because they are not under the executive department. They were something like guest participants in the fact-finding aspects but they had no hand in the evaluations and recommendations made by the DOJ,” he added.
Yesterday, the task force also released more detailed findings on the administrative and criminal liability of the officials it recommended to be charged in the PhilHealth mess.
It said that Morales and the other officials were negligent in their duties in connection with PhilHealth’s IRM funds, certain procurements, and accountability mechanism.
The task force said it found irregularities in the three areas where it focused its probe, namely the approval and implementation of the IRM funds, approval of budgets for the purchase of IT equipment, and corporate policies that failed to hold accountable erring PhilHealth personnel and healthcare institutions and professionals.
“The task force found negligence on the part of the Executive Committee and the Board in the implementation of the IRM as its releases were rushed even when the circular implementing the scheme was not yet effective and the IRM was implemented without sufficient guidelines, making fund releases susceptible to abuse,” the task force said.
Likewise, it said the IRM funds were released despite the absence of mechanisms to monitor fund utilization and liquidation, and without taxes due thereon being withheld.
The task force said the officials also “purposely withheld the presentation of important information or audit documents in order to obtain the Board’s approval on their requested budget allocations” for the purchase of certain IT equipment.
The task force flagged what it said was PhilHealth’s policy of settling claims without accountability and the grant of wholesale amnesty in favor of healthcare institutions with claims that no longer appeared enforceable.
The task force recommended that the President “strongly admonish and remind the chairman and members of the Board of the grave consequence of their action or inaction to the PhilHealth fund, to the government, and its coffers, and to the interests of the ordinary people who rely on PhilHealth assistance.”
The Cabinet members who are ex-officio members of the PhilHealth board are Social Welfare Secretary Rolando Joselito Bautista, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, and Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the task force stated in its report that the PhilHealth board chairman and members allegedly exhibited negligence in several instances such as careless approval of ICT procurement and their ratification of the IRM fund releases. – With Jocelyn Montemayor